The family needs defending more than ever

Workers cover a statue of St John Paul II in Brittany (Getty Images)

It’s no secret that marriage and family have been under heavy attack in Western culture for quite some time. Not intelligent attacks, mind you, but brutish ones that trade on crippled desires. No one has taken these attacks on our social nature more seriously than the Catholic Church.

It’s quite remarkable that, despite her own serious struggles, the Church has managed to continually give aid to the embattled institutions of marriage and family. Just as the sexual revolution was roaring, Pope Paul VI dropped the bomb of Humanae Vitae. When most Catholic moral theologians were themselves becoming utilitarians more concerned to revise sexual ethics in dialogue with the sexual revolution than sexual reality, Pope John Paul II was hard at work: writing Familiaris Consortio in 1981, founding the Pontifical Institute for Marriage and Family in 1982, and almost single-handedly stemming the tide of proportionalism in fundamental moral theology with Veritatis Splendor in 1993.

Understanding all of this is crucial for appreciating why so many faithful Catholics loyal to the Holy Father have begun to express profound concern for the fate of one of those established lines of defence: the Pontifical Institute for Marriage and Family.

In 2017, Pope Francis issued a motu proprio, Summa familiae cura, essentially re-founding and re-naming the Pontifical Institute to accord with Amoris Laetitia. The Holy Father explicitly praised John Paul the Great’s vision which gave rise to the institute, but said that the re-founding was important for “expanding the field of interest, both in terms of the new dimensions of the pastoral task and the ecclesial mission, as well as in the development of human sciences and the anthropological culture in such a crucial field for the culture of life.” In this way, Pope Francis hoped, the institute would be “better known and appreciated in its fruitfulness and relevance.”

Yet expansion of a vision, or even a field of interest, does not usually entail annulling the constitution which gave birth to such a fruitful institution. More puzzling still is the notion that an institution which was conceived precisely to equip Catholic leaders with the metaphysical, moral and theological understanding of marriage and family would suddenly be able to do without professors of moral theology, such as has been recently decided by the institute, and protested by students, faculty, and alumni.

The Pontifical Academy for Life, which has immediate oversight over the implementation of the re-constituted institute, responded to these criticisms mainly by stating that “moral doctrine of marriage and family”, and “theological ethics of life”, remain a part of the institute’s coursework even if there are no professors of fundamental moral theology.

Now, I am just a simple theologian, but precisely how does one incorporate “moral doctrine” into an education without professors of moral doctrine? It’s laughable that one would consider sociology essential but moral theology a mere “prerequisite” for a proper understanding of marriage and family.

Of course, none of these particular puzzles were demanded by Pope Francis’s motu proprio. So from whence do such reforms come? The institute’s Grand Chancellor, Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, is probably the best person to answer that question. But his institute’s initial statement clarified nothing. One drafter of the protest has called it a “coup d’état”, but if it is, it is an intellectually embarrassing one.

Last week, the television host Mario Lopez, who recently had his third child, was asked about the trend of Hollywood parents who encourage their children to determine for themselves whether they are boys or girls.

Lopez remarked: “If you’re 3 years old and you’re saying you’re feeling a certain way or you think you’re a boy or a girl or whatever the case may be, I just think it’s dangerous as a parent to make this determination then, well, OK, then you’re going to a boy or a girl, whatever the case may be … It’s sort of alarming and my gosh, I just think about the repercussions later on.”

Until a cultural minute ago, that was parental common sense. Yet it now breaks all the rules of wokeness. So naturally, activist groups were stoking the progressive fires to get Lopez fired.

He soon performed the rite of contrition perfectly. Not only did he apologize for his “ignorant and insensitive” comments about parenting and gender identity, but he bowed in obeisance to the Pride Flag: “I have been and always will be an ardent supporter of the LGBTQ community.”

This very public act of contrition sounds structurally familiar. “O my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended You…who are all good and deserving of all my love. I firmly resolve…to confess my sins, to do penance and to amend my life.” Lopez must not only say that he is sorry. He must profess his love. He must declare that he is “an ardent supporter” of the five-lettered god, and he must “use this opportunity” to do penance and amend his life to “be more informed and thoughtful.”

The religious poignancy of Lopez’s apology is uncanny. It is a sort of parody of Christianity. Yet since this new religion calls evil good, and considers common sense to be dangerous, it offers no redemption. It only drags people down deeper into the despairing loneliness of self-consumption – the will willing nothing but itself.

CC Pecknold is Associate Professor of Theology and a fellow of the Institute for Human Ecology at The Catholic University of America in Washington, DC. Read his columns at